Double Deathshead 1997 is a landscape-orientated colour screenprint on wove paper that depicts two human skulls with a set of crossbones running through them. Pictured in the centre of the composition against a bright red background, the hand-drawn skulls are depicted frontally and tightly adjacent to each other as if they are conjoined. Two thin bones appear to pass diagonally through the skulls from which their endings protrude to form the shape of a cross. The skulls and crossbones incorporate fluorescent ink so that they glow in the dark. The work is displayed with a pair of plastic eyes on springs that are affixed to a glazed frame over the two central eyes, one belonging to each skull. The work is signed by the artists on its reverse.
This work was made in London in 1997 by the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who are brothers. The skull and crossbones symbol has traditionally been associated with death, danger and warfare, as the title Double Deathshead suggests. The symbol was a feature of uniforms worn by Nazi SS officers in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and the red background of Double Deathshead may be seen as a reference to the red armband worn by Nazi Party members.
The two skulls depicted in Double Deathshead can also be interpreted as an ironic gesture towards the Chapmans’ sibling relationship. The plastic eyes on springs that are affixed to the work suggest additional comic connotations. According to Dinos Chapman, ‘The eyes deflate any sense of menace, the whole image deflates itself’ (quoted in In Print: Contemporary British Art from the Paragon Press, exhibition catalogue, Cvijeta Zuzoric Art Pavilion, Belgrade, London 2001, p.21).
In combining associations of death with humour, Double Deathshead can be related to a broader tendency within the Chapmans’ practice in which laughter functions, as the curator Tanya Barson argued in 2006, as ‘rebellious, apocalyptic, ambivalent and scatological, and is directed against complacency’ (Tanya Barson, ‘Powers of Laughter’, in Tate Liverpool 2006, p.67). In an interview with the writer David Barrett in 2006 the artists discussed how their work is partly designed to provoke uneasy laughter from viewers:
[Shock is] a display mechanism to show everybody around you that you’re morally disturbed by something. Whereas laughter – it just happens. You don’t choose to laugh; a horrible thing inside you says, ‘I’m gonna ignore my morality and I’m gonna laugh’. You laugh at bad things, ridiculous things. It’s a convulsive reaction; ‘convulsion’ is that inability to make a rational response, or where the linguistic response is woefully inadequate. And we try to make that happen in the work.
(Quoted in Barrett 2007, p.5.)
Dinos Chapman was born in 1962 in London and studied at Ravensbourne College of Art (1980–3), while Jake Chapman, who was born in 1966 in Cheltenham, studied at North East London Polytechnic (1985–8). The pair began making work together towards the end of their studies at the Royal College of Art in London (1988–90). Great Deeds Against the Dead 1994, a sculptural installation featuring mutilated fibreglass mannequins tied to a tree in a scene inspired by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746–1828), was one of four works by the Chapmans included in the seminal group show Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1997. Nazi imagery was a prominent feature of Hell 1998–2000, a sculptural installation consisting of nine glass cases filled with over ten thousand miniature figures performing acts of horrific violence. The Chapmans’ interest in exploring the iconography of contemporary capitalism can be seen in The Chapman Family Collection 2002 (Tate T12755), an installation featuring thirty-four wooden carvings that combine symbols of western capitalism, such as those associated with the fast food chain McDonald’s, with sculptural forms and modes of display associated with non-western tribal artifacts. Alongside their sculptures, the Chapmans have also made films, paintings and drawings.
Double Deathshead is part of Screen, a portfolio of eleven prints by London-based artists that was published in 1997 by Charles Booth-Clibborn under his imprint The Paragon Press. The works were all made between February and July 1997, and are presented together with a title page and colophon by the graphic designer Phil Baines in a black buckram-covered wooden case. The title of the portfolio refers to the technique of screenprinting and also alludes to the fact that many of the featured artists work with screen-based media. Each print exists in an edition of seventy-five, with the first forty-five produced in portfolio sets, of which the portfolio owned by Tate is number thirty-three.
Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2006.
David Barrett, Jake and Dinos Chapman, London 2007.
Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2011, reproduced p.12.
Supported by Christie’s.